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Culture Couch is WYSO's occasional series exploring the arts and culture scene in our community. It’s stories about creativity – told through creative audio storytelling.

Supporting The Opera Through Education

The Opera Guild of Dayton brings opera experiences to local schools
Jonathan Platt
The Opera Guild of Dayton brings opera experiences to local schools

The Opera Guild of Dayton was incorporated 54 years ago.  Their mission is to support Opera in the Dayton region.  They’ve given more than 2 million dollars to the Dayton Opera, but they do more than raise money – they get school children involved in opera performance.

This fall, volunteers from the Opera Guild of Dayton have been visiting local schools.  They bring a professional soprano and cast a show - filling out the rest of the cast with kids from third through sixth grade in all the major roles for a production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s Pirates of Penzance.  Community Voices producer Jonathan Platt sat in on a production at Prass Elementary in Kettering.

We are in the school gym, and 4th grader Andrew is ready to go all out for the casting call for Pirates of Penzance. The volunteer with the microphone announces, “I need 3 volunteers to play the policemen…three policemen.”

In the middle of the floor Andrew raises his hand high above his head and expresses his eagerness with, “Ohhhhh, ohhhhhhhhhh!”  After the second round, he is called onto the stage.  A volunteer gives him a fake billy club and a costume fitting. 

Soon the fourth grade police officers huddle with another volunteer:  the acting coach.  She instructs them how to deliver their lines, “Hurrah, hurrah.”

It looks chaotic, but it is organized.   There are a dozen volunteers helping the students quickly transition into flamboyant characters of this 19th century operetta.  Josh is cast as Frederic, the lonely pirate that does not want to be a pirate anymore. 

Josh admits,  “I never really acted that much before, so I am not sure how good I’ll do.”

The first act begins; five pirates come down stage singing the pirates' birthday song.  The audience, reading from cue cards, joins in. Then Major-General Stanley and his daughters prance on stage, and all eyes are on Mabel.  And then Frederic is left alone with Mabel… giggles and chatter cease because Mabel for the first time sings.

Mabel is played by professional opera singer, Tami Schaff, who belts out an aria reminiscent of real opera.

This is where it all begins to come together.  The volunteers, dressed all in black, surround the ensemble and keep eye-contact with their students on stage.  As each volunteer makes a gesture, such as a twirl of a parasol or a waving of a billy club, so does the actor on stage.  It is a duel performance led by the old hands of the opera. No surprise that the Opera Volunteer International named the Opera Guild of Dayton Partners in Excellence for outstanding service in 2017.  After the show I found Josh, the lonely pirate, changing out of his costume and asked him what he thought when the beautiful opera singer was looking into his eyes lovingly?

Josh said,  “It was a little creepy.  It was kind of weird but I do enjoy acting.  It was a fun experience and this is actually my first time ever I’ve done acting.”

“Wow, do you think you’ll do it again?” I asked.

Josh paused and said,  “Yeah, maybe, maybe.”

Later I spoke with Tami Schaff and told her that the student she sang to found the experience kind of creepy.  She laughed.  The more bashful they are, the more she’ll put it on.  And in the end, she said, she won him over to opera.   And that’s the whole idea.  Many of the volunteers were won over when they saw the Opera Guild perform at their school many years ago.  Now they get the opportunity to carry on that appreciation to current educators and, yes, enchantment for the kids.

Culture Couch is made possible by a generous grant from the Ohio Arts Council.

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